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British troops handled rioting Iraqi youths just right

A new video making the television news programs appears to show British troops in Basra savagely beating poor, innocent Iraqi youths. With lips curled in contempt and wearing concerned looks on their faces, media talking heads worry about the effect the images will have on international perceptions of the Iraq war. To the informed observer, however, the spectacle the media present shows what little understanding the writers, editors and presenters have of the war in Iraq.

The video, apparently taken in 2004, opens with a brief scene of Iraqi youths stoning British troops. It then shows British troops dispersing the crowd and beating and kicking a few people they managed to catch. The video is accompanied by the commentary of a British soldier describing the scene like it's a soccer game.

The key element is that the British troops were confronted with a crowd that stoned them. The British army has had lengthy experience in Northern Ireland in dealing with riots and with crowds that attack and provoke British troops. What the British troops did in the video is exactly what they are trained to do and have done already in Iraq.

When confronted with a crowd that tries to stone British troops, there are four kinds of responses. The first is to withdraw; the second, remain in place and take the beating; the third, to disperse the crowd and teach a lesson to the rioters; and fourth, to shoot into the crowd.

If the troops withdrew while being stoned by Iraqi youths, the British army would lose all the respect upon which law and order depends in that part of the country. No one in Iraq will respect a police or military force that runs away and grants a victory to rioters, or simply allows itself to be stoned with impunity.

By dispersing the crowd and beating up a few that they can catch, the British troops demonstrated that there is a price to be paid for misbehavior and for trifling with the British army.

The fourth option, shooting into the crowd, would amount to an excessive use of force if the rioters were unarmed, as they apparently were. If some rioters were armed and posed a lethal threat to the troops, then the troops would be entirely justified to fire into the crowd. The British troops correctly measured the threat and dealt with it appropriately.

The voice-over commentary is what offends the media talking heads the most as they watch the video in the comfort and safety of their air-conditioned studios. Such, however, is the levity of soldiers who risk their well-being far from home.

The video was made more than a year ago, and the people of Basra, who were directly affected, have had more than enough time to learn of the event and absorb its lessons. We didn't hear of the beatings from them. The hand wringing that is going on in the media now, long after the event transpired, is nothing but a display of moralistic narcissism.

Yes, war is ugly, brutal and violent. And British soldiers are tough, professional and well trained. We should be thankful they are on our side.

Vincent J. Curtis of Hamilton, Ont., is a freelance writer who was embedded with the British forces in Iraq last year.

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